Yuan Chang, review of Nicolas Berg’s “The Holocaust and the West German Historians: Historical Interpretation and Autobiographical Memory”

Nicolas Berg. The Holocaust and the West German Historians: Historical Interpretation and Autobiographical Memory. Trans. and ed. Joel Golb. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015. 346 PP. Paper $34.95. ISBN:‎ 9780299300845.

The Holocaust and the West German Historians is an edited English translation of the original German text Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker: Erforschung und Erinnerung, first published in 2003.[1] Over five chapters, the author, Nicolas Berg, produces a detailed account of prominent German historians and their attitudes toward Nazism and the Holocaust from the postwar period up to the 1970s.

Berg covers historians such as Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1954), Gerhard Ritter (1888-1967), Fritz Ernst (1889-1958), and Hermann Heimpel (1901-1988) — the many personalities from the Institute of Contemporary History (Institut für Zeitgeschichte; IfZ) in Munich — and a Polish-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, Joseph Wulf (1912-1974). With the exception of Wulf and perhaps Meinecke, most of the other figures in Berg’s analysis were, at best, reluctant participants in reflecting on the events of the war, if not “condoning” the Holocaust altogether. Indeed, in the author’s analysis, some West German scholars in the immediate postwar period apparently regarded Hitler and Nazism as not a German problem, but rather as a symptom of a larger, universal, anthropological phenomenon related to European modernity and mass society. Therefore, among an older generation of German historians, Nazism was often held as existing outside of history, with no particular memory or historical connection to Germany (22-25).

However, this is not to say that no scholar reflected on the Third Reich. As Berg suggests, Meinecke’s The German Catastrophe (1946) is deeply critical of modern Germany. Additionally, it is a melancholy contemplation of the past that ruefully recalls the loss of nineteenth-century German cultural values, which failed to transmit into the twentieth century (56-57). Meinecke’s view on this matter differed from mainstream postwar German historiography. The position of West German historians in general was closer to Ritter, a prominent historian in his own right. Accordingly, Ritter was interested in defending Germany and its culture. For one thing, he was extremely adamant about separating Germany from Nazism. To him, Nazism was not a German phenomenon; rather, it had its roots in the French Revolution and was then imported to Germany by the Austrian-born Hitler under the Italian influence of Mussolini (63). Needless to say, for some eminent West German historians in the immediate postwar era, the need to redeem German tradition from the Nazi aberration was a central research agenda.

There were at the same time historians who chose to take a more “confessional” stance towards the Holocaust. However, even here, Berg suggests that many West German historians tended to fall short of full acknowledgement of German guilt. In the case of Ernst, for example, despite his supposed confessional attitude towards the war, he tried to avoid talking about German guilt while at the same time downplaying the Holocaust (108-113). On the other hand, despite Heimpel’s struggle with the Christian concept of penitence and the question of German responsibility, his attitude towards the past was also determined by his complaints of victor justice and his reluctance to express his attitude of atonement fully in writing (127, 8).

Berg also addresses the supposed “scientific objectivity” based on archival research espoused by many West German historians during the period, especially those affiliated with the IfZ. The Institute supported a “neutral” type of scholarship that aimed to explore the causes of Nazism and “the structure and course of the Nazi system” (145). This, in many ways, led to the IfZ downplaying the events of the Holocaust. For example, the Institute decided in 1954 not to translate British scholar Gerald Reitlinger’s The Final Solution (1953), which was a “first general account of that genocidal campaign” (152). As Berg points out, for many years in West Germany, Reitlinger’s book was not considered to be a work of academic history but rather “the most fearsome accusation leveled against the National Socialist state that has ever been written” (152). In other words, it was not an objective, dispassionate analysis of the Holocaust and therefore could not be taken as “serious scholarship.”

Out of all the historians presented in the book, Joseph Wulf was most willing to confront the recent past. Acting as a foil against the establishment, Wulf is depicted as a tragic hero who meticulously wrote about the Nazis’ actions. Berg writes that in the immediate postwar period, compared to the “overwhelming majority of West German historians,” Wulf and his colleague, the French Jewish historian Léon Poliakov (1910-1997) “placed the German destruction of European Jewry at the center of their interpretation of Nazism” (194). Indeed, “Holocaust research actually began with the work of Wulf and Poliakov” (241). It is no wonder, then, that scholars like Wulf were never accepted by the West German historical establishment. For instance, when Wulf and Poliakov published The Third Reich and Its Thinkers, a documentary study of the Holocaust, in 1959, it was heavily criticized by conservative intellectuals including Armin Mohler (1920-2003). Mohler specifically called the work a “nuisance” and declared it to be “a kind of address book for the continuation of ‘denazification’” (190). For conservative historians, Wulf’s and Poliakov’s work was not considered serious or objective. Berg also examines Wulf’s involved dispute with a former Nazi official, Dr. Wilhelm Hagen, who served as the director of Warsaw’s health authority during the war. Accordingly, Wulf referred to Hagen as an “accomplice” to Nazi crimes. This not only led to some exchanges between Wulf and a couple of historians from the IfZ, who defended Hagen at his request, but also Hagen’s defamation lawsuit against Wulf in the 1960s. As Berg shows, the outcome was unsurprising: the IfZ did not totally withdraw its support of Hagen, and Hagen was successful in his lawsuit against Wulf, which led to the redaction of relevant pages concerning Hagen in The Third Reich and Its Thinkers (214-228).

Wulf’s last years were not any better. In a letter to his son in 1974, Wulf complained about how his eighteen books on the Third Reich did not change the mindset of society. Murderers, he claimed, still “walk around free, have their little houses and cultivate flowers” (231). He eventually died by suicide in the same year – a time when his publications were as yet unable to find much support among mainstream West German academic historians.

Among the many issues examined by Berg, I found the connection between scholarship and politics to be the most interesting. Indeed, a question that needs to be asked is whether “neutrality” or “objectivity” can be achieved in the study of Nazi Germany? Berg shows that it is not possible to simply engage in a “value-free” analysis of historical documents in order to analyze the Holocaust. But the objectivity question can also become extremely problematic should a historian decide to adopt an extreme version of the Sonderweg discourse, which suggests an inherent German disposition toward Nazism. Many of the West German historians Berg has studied, particularly someone like Ritter, were especially sensitive to such charges of a depraved “German uniqueness.” One prominent example of this kind of attack is A.J.P. Taylor’s polemical work The Course of German History (1945), which castigates the Germans and their culture as inherently corrupt, so much so that Taylor perceived their destiny to be set in stone, and argued that it was only natural for Germany to go from Luther to Hitler.[2] This notion of historical inevitability, while fascinating, entirely neglects many of the finer details and changes engendered by historical accidents. Teleology also generates passionate, broad-sweeping counterarguments that may lack nuance. In other words, polemics are the foe of a well-rounded, genuine historical analysis.

Given the monstrosity of the Holocaust, was any type of “defense” justified? From Berg’s narrative, whether it is Ritter or the IfZ, the intervention on the part of the establishment was not persuasive. Still, if we approach this issue from the angle of an urgent need to defend one’s Kultur, that is, from the perspective that preserving the integrity of one’s culture is the highest form of moral duty, then it becomes clearer why many West German historians were reluctant to discuss in-depth the crimes committed by the Nazis, however morally repugnant these acts might be.

Perhaps the connection between academic history and politics cannot be severed. After all, if, as Jo Guldi and David Armitage have argued in The History Manifesto (2014), that academic historians should play a more active role in shaping the world by using historians’ knowledge of the past to offer guidance, then maybe this was also the goal of many of the West German historians. In the end, the vexing problem of the political remains elusive. How much should a historian’s work act as a guide for the present? To what extent should it be about “pure” scholarship that focuses only on the past? The two are also not mutually exclusive, which is why this is a complicated issue. Berg himself has related how his book was disapproved of by Hans Mommsen (1930-2015), who worked at the IfZ in the late 1950s, for being too political. Specifically, Mommsen criticized Berg for his “political-moral approach to the history of National Socialism,” which showed “a preconceived decisionistic-moralizing position” on the part of the author (14). Of course, this very critique itself is also conceived in political, moralistic terms. It would appear, then, that in the context of understanding Germany’s recent past, politics and scholarship do share an unbreakable bond.

The Holocaust and the West German Historians is a fascinating read and an important piece of scholarship as it examines historians’ craft. The American edition deserved a proper concluding chapter in which the author could have delved deeper into the development of mainstream German academic discourse on the Holocaust since the 1970s. While some of this history is addressed in the introduction to this edition, a formal conclusion would have made the analysis more complete. Nonetheless, the book offers something for anyone who is interested in modern Germany and its continuing development. The same is true for readers who are interested in how historians view the past and the narratives they help to create.

[1] Berg’s German publication is 784 pages: Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker: Erforschung und Erinnerung (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2003).
[2] Berg does mention Ritter’s criticism of Taylor’s scholarship in general. One could only believe that The Course of German History was among the most important pieces of writing that Ritter would have objected to (69). Berg also addresses the issue of sensitivity against foreign criticism in the book’s introduction (6-7).

Yuan Chang is an assistant professor in the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He received his Ph.D. in Comparative World History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2017. He is currently working on a book titled, The Failure of the Past: Leo Strauss, Xiong Shili and the Conservative Historical Imagination (under contract with Cambridge University Press).

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